Russian newly crowned Tsar and his three European servants qualify for “Ally”

“Here he is, your new European Ping Pong Champion, Dimitry Popov.”

In the dimming and flashing lights of the Liget Club in Budapest it was the Russian who raised his arms in the air after dominating the final against Spaniard Javier Benito, and claiming the first European hardbat title in straight sets (3-0). Eventhough Benito lost the final, he wasn’t very disappointed, because both players already secured their place in the World Championship of Ping Pong, which takes place next January in Alexander Palace. Besides the two finalists, the other two semi-finalists, Polish Przemysław Sałaciński and Romanian teenager Vlad Fărcaș, also claimed the two remaining spots.

The Hungarian capital was the stage for the first ever European Hardbat Championships, in which I it offered four tickets up for grabs for the prestigious tournament in London. Be one of the lucky ones. Players from various countries flew in to Budapest. The tournament was spread out over a period of two days with the group stages and three of knock-out stages being held in the National Table Tennis Centre.

Whilst the outside temperature reached and sometimes even dropped below freezing point and tourists strolled around various Christmas markets, sipping mulled beer and dressed up warmly with scarfs and extra thick jackets, the people who took part in the tournament wore almost nothing but their sports gear and drinking water. The elements for the players weren’t perfect to try and escape the hectics and noisiness of the hall and therefore staying inside to avoid the cold outside temperature.

The players that reached the quarter-finals continued their quest for a ticket in Alexander Palace in Liget Club, where one win was enough to achieve that goal. The players that gathered around the referee table Saturday morning, were divided into 16 groups. The numbers one to three qualified for the knock-stages, which took place to following day.

During the group stage it was German Robert Janke who impressed despite being considered as one the outsiders to qualify. On forehand it was clear who were the big favourites to at least make it to the night club.

Dimitry Popov, Javier Benito, Przemysław Sałaciński and Vlad Fărcaș, they all know what it means to take part in the most talked about tournament amoung hardbat players. All four did experience the shining lights and noisiness of the biggest tournament in the past as Popov and Vlad are familiar faces in the second day of the WCPP. And these big names didn’t waste any energy, easily cruising through the group stages.

It was no big surprise that the majority of the players that signed up for this tournament came from Hungary but also players from other Eastern-European countries took part. Only seven players from Western-European countries signed up. One of them, the Dutch Kelvin Heemstra, was part of some controversy. During his match against a Hungarian player he trailed by 7-1 in the final set. After they switched tablesides he had an eight point run, meaning he took a 7-9 lead. However both his opponent and the referee came from Hungary and claimed it was 8-8.

After an endless discussion with both the organiser, Gerely Urban and replaying the video’s it ended as a stand-off.

Maybye it had to do with the fact that the Hungarian player was a bit annoyed by the way Kelvin used his serve to his advantage. Both the referee and player complained about it and it may have had a minor effect on this controversy.

Anyhow, Kelvin lost, but sometimes things can take a twist as the Hungarian player lost the next match.

During the knock-out stages the big names finally had to work for it. Whereas Popov, Janke and Sałaciński had easy wins, Vlad and Benito really had to dig deep in order to avoid elimination.

Both players had a 3-2 win and made it to the nightclub. It was a new experiment and it brought back memories when the first edition of the WCPP was held in Las Vegas under similar circumstances. Several media-broadcasting teams were present in Liget Club providing multiple livestreams on the internet. When the first match, the Spaniard Benito vs. Serbian Kostadinovic was under, it was clear everyone was a bit uncertain and seeking how to react to this new concept. The light was slightly inconsistent making the dj a bit uncertain when to speak during the match.

There were also two walk-on girls showing which set was about to commence. A bit like boxing. One unique feature was the double-point element. When players decided to use the double-point there was one girl who brought the ball to the player, but in stead of giving it straight away she walked an extra “round.” Later that night things went better, but the flashy nature and inconsistencies of lights between the points was a bummer. Playing under these new circumstances was something that al the eight players weren’t familiar with. The Spaniard was very nervous and dropped the first set.

He recovered and cruised through the following three sets taking the first qualifying spot. “Im very happy to have qualified for ‘London’. I played there two years and I love the city also,” was the first to reaction of Benito. He was able to play at the same high level throughout the two days but was very down to earth about it: “I didn’t train on forehand, the Spanish league ended one week before this tournament.” The Spanish player isn’t very outspoken about his ambition in London and takes the tournament as it comes.

Polish Sałaciński had to beat Hungarian Peter Palos to secure his spot in ‘Ally Pally’. Palos didn’t show his potential during the matches leading up to this quarterfinal match, whereas Sałaciński just played with full power. It was the Polish player who was struggling a bit but used his experience in order to qualify for the WCPP with a 3-2 win. “I’m very happy to have qualified here in Budapest. This means I don’t have to take part in the Polish qualification tournaments. I’ve been part of this tournament two times now and I hope to reach the last 16,” was the reaction of  happy Sałaciński.

The match everyone was looking forward to was the one between Russian Dimitry Popov and German Robert Janke. Both players impressed everyone and it was the German who started as a tornado. Popov didn’t know what was happening to him the first set as Janke simply overpowered him. After dropping the first set, Popov was able to keep calm and gain control of the match and frustrate the German who made too many unforced errors. Meaning the Russian won 3-1 and was able to think about his participation in London.

The last match of the quarterfinals was a match between teenager Vlad Fărcaș and Hungarian Barrasso. After dropping the first set, the teenager fought back and showed why he is a multiple participant in Alexander Palace. He stood up when the big points were played and secured his spot in the 2018 WCPP with a 3-1 win. “I played very well, I did what I had to and I’m going to London, so Im happy,” said the teenager. “It was difficult to play here because everyone expected me to qualify. My goal is to make it to the main draw.”

After the four qualifying spots were taken it was time to decide who would be crowned European Champion. It was Benito vs. Sałaciński ‘whilst Popov battled Vlad. It was the Spaniard and the Russian who were victorious and made it to the final. In this final it was Popov who showed no mercy and clinched the first European title. However, all four places have to reach a higher level in London, given the fact that Popov, Sałaciński and Vlad never made it to the last 16 and the level of the players will be higher each year.

Gerely Urban, who is one of the three organisers reflects on the two days: “ I am happy with how things went these two days. Budapest is a nice city, even if you lose there is stuff to do. We had 2 TV channels and the event was run on the budget that we collected on entry fees.” The four players who qualified get their hotel paid by this organisation and overall it was a unique and new event which hopefully gets a second edition next year.

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